Atheists Only Slightly Worse at Retaining Children than Holiness Folk

May 15th, 2014 / 34 Comments

A poll a few years ago from the Pew research group has generated surprising results. Some of the results encourage me. Others are profoundly discouraging!

According to the Pew poll, only 30% of those raised in atheist homes remain atheists. That’s a pretty astounding number!

That means 7 out of 10 kids raised by atheist parents chose a path different from their parents. To a theist like me, it’s encouraging to see many choosing to believe in God.

Now the discouraging news: only 32% of those raised in holiness Christian homes stay in that tradition. To someone like me who was raised in and is committed to the holiness tradition, that’s bad news!

Here’s a graph compiled from the Pew study:

What does this mean? What needs to change?

I suspect that the vast majority of those raised by holiness Christian parents are not becoming atheists. I suspect they are moving to other Christian traditions.

To which traditions are they moving?

I don’t know.


I don’t know that either.

I’m sure there are many reasons children with holiness parents are leaving. The recent work by David Kinnaman points to some reasons. In his book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church… and Rethinking Faith, Kinnaman’s surveys reveal the following reasons young people aren’t staying in the churches in which they were raised or are rethinking faith:

– Young people feel overprotected by their parents and elders

– Young people think Christianity as presented to them is shallow

– Young people perceive the church as against science

– Young people think Christians have skewed or repressive views of sex and sexual orientation issues

– Young people believe the church is too exclusive of outsiders

– Young people think the church allows no room for their doubts

Holiness Christians, generally speaking, have been slow to adapt to the changing world. They have not taken the lead in the academy, in culture, or in other domains.

To many, I suspect, “holiness” means “living in the past.” That may be a reason the children of holiness Christians are not staying in the holiness tradition.

Holiness as Love

My experience tells me, however, that those who understand holiness primarily as love are more likely to remain in the holiness tradition. By contrast, those who think holiness is primarily about rules and social taboos leave the holiness tradition.

In my view, the holiness message of love can be persuasive to youth today. But holiness people like me must be willing to adapt our language and the form of that message. We must explore the power of ancient practices and innovative liturgies.

We in the holiness tradition also must not be afraid to address the hard questions, face the tough issues, and be humble enough to admit we haven’t got everything figured out. Year after year, young people come through my undergraduate and graduate courses eager to go deeper in their faith. Most want to get beyond surface answers and flippant platitudes.

We have much work to do to reverse the trend. I sure want to be part it!

Your thoughts?

Add comment


Cody Bolton

When I first looked at the chart, I thought “I wonder what makes Hinduism so appealing from generation to generation?” And the flip-side, “What makes the child generations to want to leave atheism, holiness traditions, congregationalist traditions, etc.”

Certainly something that needs to be prayed over, and something that we in the Holiness traditions need understand. Thanks for sharing!

Rhonda Manley

I agree with your thought that many who are leaving the holiness tradition are probably not becoming athiests, but joining other traditions.  The “retention factor” that this chart shows shouldn’t really be a surprise, at least for protestants. Part of being seeker-friendly is acknowledging that people are looking for something that feels friendly, and the idea acts as permission to leave if you find yourself uncomfortable, which young people are doing. 

I am one of those young people. I was raised in the Nazarene Church and have recently decided to leave.  I can only speak from my experience, but I fall under none of the categories listed for why young people are leaving the Church.  Although I greatly respect the Nazarene denomination, will always be grateful to those who have helped me in my journey, and will even retain many of my Nazarene views after my “conversion,” I find protestantism, in general, to be distasteful, and choose to respectfully join my voice to the tradition of the Church as found in Eastern Orthodoxy.

This, for me, is not purely an issue of doctrine, but also a personal submission to the teachings of the Church.  Instead of feeling as if I’m leaving my tradition, I feel as if I’m returning to it.  The transition from Western, seeker-friendly, protestant evangelicalism to the mystical faith of the East has been difficult, and has challenged me to grow in various ways and to practice humility in my theology.

Part of that theological humility means that my idea of what the Church is or should look like is much larger than what it once was.  God is awfully big.  His Church doesn’t have to be so small.

Brad Dyrness

Interesting – I am working in a sermon about the scandalous love of God and trying to present the idea that God calls us to a love relationship not a list of rules.  Perhaps the outcome isn’t that different – we respond in loving God first and others second which often results in similar behavior, but for a different motivation.  I abstain, (include whatever we abstain from:)  or engage in…) not because I earn points or fear punishment but rather out of a relationship of love.  Love towards me and then me responding back to God.


Interesting! I’m glad to see that Atheists are the least likely to remain Atheists than any other group! (If I understand this correctly). I would also agree that as Christians, we should answer tough questions. Time for Classical and Evidential Apologetics. Notice that Baptists are way up there! woo hoo! !!! (I admit, I am bias) !

Jim Chapman

Would this mean the Baptist Church is not lacking in the same areas? I beg to differ. They take similar stances in those hot topics as the holiness movement does. You’ve skated past the issue like most Holiness churches do.


An atheist becoming some sort of theist is a far more significant change than one Christian embracing some other Christian tradition.

I wouldn’t worry too much.

Lisa Steeves

Hi Dr. Oord! I know that your ministry is mostly concerned with young people, but we must also recognize that older adults are also dealing with these issues. They either leave the church or, like me, they sit in silence hoping to get something out of the service. I used to teach Sunday school using books and other materials that reflected what I had learned in the Spiritual Formation program, but my class suffered a lot of gossip (such as I wasn’t teaching the Bible) and finally dwindled down to one 80-year old retired language teacher who loved to think. Those who ask the tough questions in church are shunned. No one seems to want to discuss anything controversial. They just want the canned curriculum that makes them feel good about their faith so they can go out and “suffer” through another week in the world. What will we do about these people? Will we simply just “pray about it” like Cody suggested, or will we truly seek answers and have the courage to do what God asks?

Frances Parker

I was raised with stifling rules and regulations and only in my thirties did I begin to see God as a God of “scandalous love” as your friend put it.  This God that I have begun to know and love more deeply every day has radically changed me, but I am finding it challenging to adequately portray the heavenly relationship of the love that I feel between us to my family.
Yes, God is love.  And God is real.  Those of us that take time to nurture that relationship know that.
But until I and the church family I meet with on Sunday mornings become more than just another club filled with good people with a focus, a mission statement, and a place to pay our dues, how are we any different than many philanthropic organizations?  “Do not even the publicans do the same? KJV” ?!  Maybe it’s time to “wait on the Lord till we be endued with power from on high”.  Time to mix a little (or a lot) of power with the holiness, the love…

Todd Holden

Thanks again Tom for reminding us that love is intrinsically connected to holiness. I would go so far to say that, no love, no holiness!
The older I get the more I see how much our God is love and how much love we can share, if we open our eyes!

Roger A. Sawtelle

I was taught that there are two aspects of Christianity, faith an works.  Too much faith or love is faithism, belief in faith for its own sake.  Too much emphasis on works results in legalism and works righteousness.

I see too much Legalism in American Christianity today, churches that say that to be saved one must do this and believe that.  This is definitely false, but it does provide stability and support for many people.

Faithism can be easy too because it avoids controversy by avoiding difficult issues.  But faith and love are the basis of Christian faith.  We are saved by grace through faith. 

While Christians like all humans need rules to provide structure and order to our lives, our relationship to God and others is based on the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, not by creeds or works.  I find that many today really do not understand this.

While basing a Church on our relationship to God and others, a living faith that results in works of love, is not a quick fix, I believe that it is a lasting solution to our spiritual problems.


Atheists may become “nothing in particular” which may be basically still atheist. So while others really lose someone if they be come a “none”, it is not the same for atheists. So the way the data is presented may be distorting things. “Research Center finds that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%”

Courtney Gilbert

Dr. Oord,
I appreciate this post so much. As someone who did not grow up in church at all, let alone a Holiness tradition, I value this post.
It is important to keep all of these thoughts in mind when ministering to youth, young adults, and families. Ministering to youth, young adults, and families with the understanding that they might see the Holiness tradition with various skepticisms might help us address those issues in a different way. Understanding where families and young adults are coming from will help us hopefully keep people from leaving the church.
We must also learn to embrace our call to holiness and learn how to explain the holiness lifestyle to others. Rather than presenting teens with a list of things not to do, how about we show them reasons why we don’t do these things? We need to show students why it is important to live a holy life, that is pleasing to the Lord.

hubert tiger

In South Africa, I am sure that statistics would not be much different with regard to the Holiness Churches. I believe that it is imperative for Christians in the Holiness tradition pause and begin to reflect on why it is that so many young people tend to leave the church after completing High School. Dr. Oord certainly provides in my view the very centre of our problem and that it is our understanding of Holiness as parents and can attest to the fact that most Christians from the holiness tradition will confirm that they understand holiness as rules and social taboos. One of the things that frustrate our young people is that fact that everything seems set and in a mould, all neatly packaged and ready to obey. Somehow the element of exploring and discovery is deleted from the process of young people’s journey of faith in the holiness tradition. The statistics had me asking what is that the Hindu, Jews and Muslims do daily that we seem to be lacking. Somehow our youth and families have been lost in translation. The challenge I believe is to be open to learn from others and begin to explore together how we could turn the tide on this statistic. While we concern ourselves and pride ourselves in our tradition we are losing young people and families because we are not willing to open up to other possibilities of living out our holiness tradition. [Word count 241]

Robert Merrills

The statistics are interesting. I was somewhat surprised at the religions/demoninations in the top five and immediately wonder why the percentages of those who grew up in those traditions remain. My initial comment would be while people have stuck to their religion of their upbringing we cannot equate their retention with active engagement. Living in Salt Lake City I understand some of the family and social pressures to stay in Mormonism even if one doesn’t fully embrace the doctrine.

Turning to the question at hand, I believe some of professor Oord’s suggestions are valid. I would think a majority of youth today embrace diversity and value the rights of each individual simply on account of their humanity. They expect that humanity to be affirmed and supported in church, whether that is members of diverse ethnic and racial groups, or dealing with gender concerns, most churches are viewed as too judgmental. Looking at this stats associated with each religion/denomination, I don’t get concerned with the %. I think an important consideration is understanding what the perception is of those in your church and community about your church and evaluating if that matches what the church has been called by God to be. Another important consideration is how is the church helping to assist the spiritual formation of our congregants and are we helping them to be critical thinkers in regard to the Bible and God’s desire for relationships. Being a non-holiness church member I admire the things the Nazarene Church is doing to create an awareness of God, God’s love and assisting in building God’s kingdom on earth. To me the Church of the Nazarene would be an attractive place. Final thought – does it say more about God, the Church or the individual when s/he chooses to join a different Christian denomination? What does your context say about the “rightness” of joining that other church?

James High

I’d like to take a bit of a different approach to understanding this data that has been presented. When I look at the numbers of what kids seem to stay in their respective religions, I see much less of a spiritual issue as I do a cultural one. What I mean is that the religions or denominations that remain in the highest percentile are ones that go beyond spiritual belief and spread into the realm of social acceptance/expectation. If you live in India, there is an expectation of hinduism beyond just a spiritual choice, but a cultural expectation. The same goes for muslim countries, and until the last century, I would say it would go for Christians in America. It’s why we see a higher number of adherents to the older denominations, because of how ingrained into the social fabric they are. Many will consider themselves Catholic because their family lineage is Catholic, again making it less of a spiritual decision than a social one. I think this is why we see a low correlation with both the holiness movement and atheists alike. Neither have reached a level of social strength that the others have, meaning loyalty for the sake of advantage is low. In addition, both the holiness movement and atheism focus on one primary thing, choice. In the understanding that it is a choice, both movements focus a lot on rules or the lack thereof to prove to their adherents that it is both right and proper to follow their way. These rules often turn off the current generation who seek to make their own spiritual decisions. All of this leads into the low retention rate, but even so, it doesn’t speak to the real reason for the percentages. It’s not that the hindus, jews, or muslims are doing their programs or advertising better than the Christians, but simply a matter of social advantage or expectation. It’s why I’m not too concerned at the dropping number of Christians in America. I feel that most who are dropping away were nominal, but claimed Christianity because it was socially advantageous. As it becomes less and less normal, more and more choose to not claim religion. It’s not so much of a grand apostasy, but a lifting a the veil, seeing the reality of the situation in this country. I actually am more hopeful now because of this, because I feel now we get to stop feeling safe behind the constructs of society and get a true understanding of what the mission field is truly like on our own soil.

Denice Gass

For many years now one of the passions that God has given me for my ministry is a desire to help the children I work with develop a personal faith. What I mean by this is that I want them to be able to articulate the important precepts and truths of their faith clearly and with a significant understanding of what that faith means to them personally. Too often, over the years, I have seen kids whose faith is linked to their parent’s faith and when they become young adults they abandon it because they believe that it has nothing for them personally.

In terms of the Holiness Tradition, for many years we have been almost afraid of sharing our unique perspective with our kids, as if we are afraid they will not understand. Oord writes that, “I suspect that the vast majority of those raised by holiness Christian parents are not becoming atheists. I suspect they are moving to other Christian traditions” (Oord, NP). In my mind, our young people are going to other churches because we have failed to teach them about the unique nature of our branch of Christianity and they move to other churches because they like the music, or the Bible study programs. No real thought is given to matters of differences in theology, because the hard questions regarding a personal faith were never asked of them. Dr. Christian Smith notes the following in his thought provoking film Soul Searching: “Teens can be articulate, but when it came to their religious faith, beliefs, most were totally at sea. They couldn’t articulate hardly anything that they believed. Again it just seemed to be something they took for granted. It was just in the background and for some teenagers our religious questions seemed to be the first time that any adult had ever asked them, “What do you believe?” (Smith, 35:15). We have got to stop being afraid to ask our kids open ended questions that will cause them to think for themselves with regard to their faith. It is critical that they understand for themselves what they believe and why they believe it. If we want to raise the next generation of adults who believe in Holiness and Perfect Love as Wesley taught it, then we need to take a risk on our kids and start helping them to cultivate a personal understanding of their faith instead of allowing them to walk into adulthood still clinging to the fringes of the faith of their parents.

Smith, Christian. “Film Adaptation of Soul Searching”. Amazon Instant Streaming Online. Accessed August 26, 2014.

bobby post

As I thinik about what I read in this essay, I have to say that none of it shocked me whatsoever. I have seen throughout my ministry, observations in churches, and coaching football that what youth learn, when not rooted deep in their family and faith, will cause them to leave the faith of their fathers. Too often, young people are able to see through the malarky that older generations are telling them to follow, but then turn around and do just the opposite of what they are teaching. iN other words, young people are tired of alll the hypocrites who step foot in the doors of the church, say one thing, and do another.

When I think about how this all relates to ministry to the youth, family and children, I would have to say that we need to be real with them. In other words, yes there are a lot of rules that denominations may have, but they are only suggestions on how to live a holy life. We need to give the history to them about why those rules were put into place, but also be flexible with them when it comes to such things as going to movies, dances, and listening to music. Another way to help in ministry is to make sure that family is a very important part of the minstry. Take a look at Jews, Muslims and Mormons; families are the most important part of their tradition and passing down their values to the next generation. When and if we do this to the church generation, maybe it will change and more will stay in the faith.

Chelsea Pearsall

Many of the reasons that Dr. Oord discusses are helpful in considering the shocking statistics regarding retention of young people in the Holiness tradition. Another aspect of this transition may be that many young people may not be learning what being a part of the Holiness tradition means. My own story, as well as numerous other stories I’ve heard, regard not knowing what it means to be a part of the Holiness tradition.

A significant aspect of this may be education, but I’ve also seen how some of the more high church practices are significant to young people. My own journey has been deeply impacted by the “innovative liturgies” that Dr. Oord describes. My hope is that we can help to encourage those currently in the Holiness tradition to continue in the tradition to help in the forming of this tradition.

Tom Wilfong

The portion of the blog that talks about the information coming out of David Kinnaman’s book was right in line with my experiences. I have not read this book but I plan on doing so. I have read the book Sticky Faith by Dr. Kara Powell and it gives some of the same indicators as to why young people leave the church once they graduate high school or leave home. I think that all people involved in ministry but especially youth ministry should begin to get a grasp on this information. I can tell you not only as a youth pastor but as a father that teens today are really grappling with the issues that were listed. They are so hungry for someone to meet them on their playing field and yet we constantly demand that they play on ours. Then we wonder why they leave or chase after religious organizations that we know are off-base; it is because those places allow them to be at ease on their playing field. What I mean by playing field is really there way of thinking, there way of understanding and processing. It is the place where they question things, they want more than “just because” or “that’s the way it’s always been”. They want to feel safe to express that they have doubts without fear of someone freaking out on them. They want to be able to wrestle with some of the harder issues in life (like sexual orientation and sex in general) and not be told to just accept what the church says and if you do not you are a sinner or deviant of some kind. I firmly believe that we, as a church, have put forth an image that Christianity is about rules; the things you can do but much, much more often the things you cannot do. Instead of promoting that Christianity is about a love relationship with Jesus and then explaining that as your relationship with Christ grows you will naturally begin to understand what is and what is not pleasing to God. We must help them to understand that you will do or not do those things because you love him and not because it is the rules or what is expected. I could go on and on but I will spare you.

Mirtha Z. Castro-Martin

God bless everyone!
I really enjoyed reading Dr. Oord’s essay. It was very interesting to see this data on a chart. I was not surprised that only 32% of those raised in holiness Christian homes stay in that tradition because I have been exposed to seeing this kind of results most of my whole life in New York City. However, I am shocked at knowing that only 30% of those raised in atheist homes remain atheists. I think that this is remarkable. Still, we need to improve our ways to getting the youth interested in the Gospel and committed to God. It is interesting to see that David Kinnaman’s survey shows the same results as when I was in my youth years ago. Youth people aren’t staying in the churches in which they were raised and this is a problem. I think that many young people are tired of being overprotected and not allowed to speak about their doubts.

It is important for adults to be mature and responsible to engage in conversation with their children and youth. I believe as Dr. Oord that the holiness message of love can be persuasive to youth today. As ministers we need to show interest in the youth. We need to show that we care. The youth are interested in people that are willing to be honest with them and that we are committed. Many youth today needs role models. In addition, the youth needs mature adults that are willing to help them grow up into mature individuals to get to the next level in life. I definitely want to be of help in any way to demonstrate the love of Christ to the youth and families. I would like to bring God’s Kingdom down to the earth as I minister so He may be glorified. [Word Count: 303]

Andy Perrine

What is our faith missing compared to all the other traditions in the world? “Only 32% of those raised in holiness Christian homes stay in that tradition.” Is it because we are “living in the past” and have adapted slowly to the changing world? I think that plays into part of why so little stay within our tradition. From my experience in working with kids, they want and crave for knowledge. Many times we underestimate what they can handle and are not upfront or honest with them. How can we expect them to understand what it means to live in a messy world, if as adults we are not willing to be messy ourselves?
I also think there is more than just adapting to a changing world. I did not grow up in a holiness Christian home, however ended up in a holiness Christian church and I can tell you it wasn’t because of the theology. It was because the people of the church modeled their faith, the people of the church actually lived what they said and this is what has kept me at the church. Sometimes the simplest things need to be done in order to make a big difference.

Mike Curry

After reading the essay, “Atheists Only Slightly Worse at Retaining Children than Holiness Folk,” I must admit that I am not at all shocked at the results of the poll. My first inclination is that children raised up in a holiness tradition that is restricting and measures holiness by external indicators may send children packing for other traditions or none at all when they have the opportunity to choose for themselves. Holiness has been taught as what a holy person looks, talks, or acts like without being taught how to develop practices that lead to a lifestyle of love that develops a believer into a person of holiness. Authenticity has been lacking as it is easy to be a poser for a while. When parents fake their spirituality at church only to be different and un-spiritual at home, it sends a mixed compartmentalized messaged. My own experience in ministry aligns with Dr. Oord’s as expressed in his statement, “that those who understand holiness primarily as love are more likely to remain in the holiness tradition.” I concur that we must recapture what it means for an almighty and holy God to love us, enfold us in that love, and then send us out to others who are desperately craving that holy love that comes only from God.

Joe Bigliogo

Then maybe a some reverse psychology is in order here. If 70% of kids brought up by atheist parents embrace theism of some kind then maybe theists should raise their kids to be atheists because there’s statistically a better chance they’ll end up believing in god (70%) than if they were brought up to be believers (apparently only 32% adhere to the parents beliefs).


While I am not near scholarly enough to discuss this with all of you, I find the question on the poll and then the results interesting in this area…the poll says “remain affiliated with that faith as adults”. I view the word ‘affiliated’ as pretty generic. Meaning, of the people I know personally who are Jewish, they are Jewish by birth or marriage and will always be ‘affiliated’, but for some of them, visits to Synagogue are rare. But none of them would never say they are ‘unaffiliated’. With my friends who have been Muslim or Hindu (while I’ve not had that many since I’ve lived in the Northwestern U.S. my entire life) I would say that same concept applies to them as well. They would basically have to renounce being Jewish/Hindu/Muslim to not be considered ‘affiliated’.

Having spent my entire life in a Holiness (Nazarene) church, I don’t feel that my simple existence is automatically associated with Holiness. The first place I was taken after I was home from the hospital as a newborn was to our Nazarene church and I’ve worked at a Nazarene university now for over 20-years, so my life as a Holiness church participant is pretty much sealed. However, and it’s a big however, if I decided to stop attending church, stop ministering to others and change my lifestyle to no longer reflect the Holiness church…I would say I’m then ‘unaffiliated’. Maybe the numbers are higher (or lower) for Holiness church people because the life lived in the Holiness church is viewed as more labor intensive than life in other churches/denominations/faiths. Not that I agree with that statement, but I don’t always agree with thoughts my brain has.


What shocks me is why does it matter if young people are leaving a specific denomination to go to a different denomination? Is that a problem for the Church? Or for the church? I cannot see that it is an issue for the Church with a capital C, universal. It matters to individual denominations, or congregations. I have heard pastors say that they are in the business of trading sheep, but not really attracting new sheep. Which ought not to be, but still is not a big cause for concern. These sheep who go to a different barn are still Christ followers, so maybe it’s more a matter of the pastor’s ego? I would like to see statistics on those young people who just leave their beliefs behind completely, and never come back. I know that many young people may leave church in their late teens and into their twenties, but then many return when they themselves have families. So maybe what I want are statistics that follow along for quite a few years, and then see what percentage really stay gone from their childhood faith?
I don’t know why people walk completely away from their faith, but I can say with certainty that it is human caused. God would never drive one of His own away. It must grieve God’s heart terribly when one of His children turns away. Especially as it was most likely hurt, offense, or even just disillusionment caused by some other (hopefully) well-meaning Christian. Of course, depending on the denomination, it may not matter, as once saved, always saved. I also would guess that in many cases Christianity is perceived to be more about a list of rules that govern proper behavior, than about a loving relationship with a Savior who died that we might be free.

Carlie Hoerth

As someone who was raised Pentecostal but then joined the Holiness people I am shocked by how many people would choose to leave this wonderful tradition! I stumbled into Holiness, only deciding on attending a Nazarene Church because my family moved to another state and the denomination I had been a part of was not represented anywhere near my new hometown, and the Nazarene community made us feel so welcome when we were in the process of finding a new church to belong to. Since then, I have come to love the holiness tradition. I have been a student of Nazarene theology for six years now, and while I don’t think the holiness tradition is perfect, I do think that the holiness tradition gets a lot right that other traditions get wrong, and I am glad I found my way to this community.

It makes me sad that only 30% of the people raised in this tradition remain in it as adults. I wonder if they get discouraged by our imperfections. I was raised to think that when something is broken we should stay and help fix it rather than abandon ship, so I have a hard time understanding people who just leave when they are unsatisfied with their denomination. Maybe they felt they couldn’t make a difference. Or, perhaps Dr. Oord is on to something. He wrote, “My experience tells me, however, that those who understand holiness primarily as love are more likely to remain in the holiness tradition. By contrast, those who think holiness is primarily about rules and social taboos leave the holiness tradition.” This is one of the downfalls to the holiness tradition is that it can focus too much on what it means to live a holy life and not enough on God’s love and grace that enable us to live holy and give us the desire to do so. Following a bunch of Kingdom rules doesn’t make sense unless you have been loved into the Kingdom. It is no wonder that people will give up on a bunch of rules when they are not taught to love the one who wrote the law. Yet, the other religions listed here also have a lot of rules to follow but not many people are leaving them. Why is that? Is it because they are better at teaching about love than holiness people, or is it because they fear excommunication if they leave their religion? My hunch is that it is the latter. So while we should do a better job at teaching love over law, I don’t think we should feel so bad about ourselves when we consider that we don’t threaten our young people into unquestioning devotion to our faith tradition.

Anyway, as I am planning on being a youth pastor in the Holiness Tradition, I need to be careful about the way that I explain what holiness is to youth and families. I don’t want to give the impression that being a Nazarene is all about following rules, when really it is all about loving and being loved. The rules are secondary, or even less of a priority than that. Our relationship with God is what is important and the way we live will follow suit when we truly learn to love God. Hopefully by maintaining this testimony we can continue to draw people from other traditions and offer them the truth that their souls are searching for. It would be interesting to see another chart that describes which religious traditions people tend to join after they leave their own. I doubt the Holiness Tradition would be at the top of the list, but I have heard so many stories from people who were not satisfied with the tradition they grew up with but they found what they were looking for within the Holiness Tradition. Let’s not be discouraged by this chart, but let us use it to make our tradition even better.

Meg Crisostomo


As someone raised in the Nazarene church, I have to admit that I don’t fully know the theological framework of the Nazarene church. Even more embarrassing is that I’ve attended a Holiness conference… What I can attest to is my experiences in ‘rules and regulations versus love’.

As a teenager in the Nazarene church, I deeply enjoyed the community aspect of it. My youth group wasn’t very large, but I could go to district youth events and meet a hundred other teens who could relate to my spiritual walk. Fast forward to college and going on a missions trip with Point Loma Nazarene University, my eyes were opened to the global aspect of the Nazarene church. I did- and always will- deeply love and cherish the international relationships formed because of the Church of the Nazarene. This aspect of the church is what made me enjoy it so much. It’s what made me stick around.

Currently though, I don’t attend a Holiness church. The biggest reason I detached myself from a church I had long adored was due to the way I was treated. I was in a leadership position and had crossed a boundary to which I had owned up to, apologized for, and accepted punishment for. Still, I felt as if the church I had devoted years of time and effort to were kicking me to the curb all because of the guy I started dating. I don’t hold grudges against those leaders or feel as if they were being unfair to me, but I do think that the rules and regulations they are so accustomed to got in the way of them offering me grace.

In many ways I felt the love that the Holiness Tradition offers through the relationships I formed with those also in the denomination, but in one very influential way I felt the consequences of the rules and regulations set forth. Still, I will always call myself a Nazarene, and I hope one day that the church can see rules and regulations as a means of guidance rather than a basis for punishment.


Missy Segota

I think the message in this blog is right on. When we approach Faith as a bunch of rules with an end-goal in mind, we are simultaneously missing the point and giving the wrong impression. When we enter a ministry position with the idea that we are going to teach right and wrong, we are not focused on the right thing. Jesus command, “these three remain, faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.” We have to change our mindset to relationships. Our goal has to become making relationships. Relationships are the number one way that we can influence others and they will actually listen to what we have to say, and more importantly, God speaks through these relationships. We must do two things, the first is to trust that God is going to work in our lives as well as the other person’s life so we have to stop trying to force it. Secondly, we have to create the space for God to come in and work. Nothing you or I do will ever lead people to Jesus. The only person who can change a person is God. We must create a space for Him to come in and work. If we don’t create the space for God to come and work then we cannot see Him come and work. So the big picture is we must create relationships to create the space for God to work and then trust that He will work.

Pam Novak

That holiness churches seem to be losing young people doesn’t completely surprise me. Like Dr. Oord, I am fairly certain that many of these young people are remaining within the Christian community, but I do have some conjectures based on my observations and conversations:
• Young people want to belong. Holiness churches have always been a minority within Christianity. Denominations like Methodist, Presbyterian, or Catholic fit that need.
• Young people want to sound different but in a “cool” way. Religions like Buddhism, Greek Orthodox, and Judaism fit that need.
• Young people are committed to inclusiveness and social justice. They are attracted to Unitarian Universalist churches, often believing that these churches are actually Christian.
• Young people have other priorities for now. I just listened to Barna’s findings on “Generation Z.” one of which is that this generation (having watched their parents struggle financially through the recession/depression of the mid-2000’s) is concerned with security and financial stability. They focus on career growth, not church attendance.
• The holiness churches have lost their distinctiveness, now that they no longer forbid dancing and movies. What is their message? The message of love could be very compelling, but many of these churches don’t articulate that as strongly as they could.
I’m sure there are other factors involved, but these are based on experiences to which I can attest.

Shauna Hanus

Looking at this from the perspective of the Nazarene Holiness tradition I agree that legalism can be a deterrent for youth to continue in the holiness tradition. The Nazarene Church being formed during the height of the temperance movement had a good measure of legalism in the early doctrine of the church. When legalism is what teaching and preaching focuses on youth may feel stifled.

In addressing our language this is continually addressed during general assembly as the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene is reviewed and updated every four years. As the language changes in the Manual, it will eventually change in the pulpit, but this takes time. Leaders in the church often tend to lead based on their education, not on language changes that occur after they have completed their education.

Addressing youth leaving the church, relationships matter. Youth who remain in the church as adults often had deep relationships with adults in the church while they were growing up. If adults in the church are focused on legalistic standards of dress, behavior, and language this does not lend itself to relationship building with youth.

Finally, my personal stance is if youth gravitate away from the holiness tradition toward other Christian churches this is fine. We may lose them in our tradition but we do not lose them to the Kingdom.

Jennifer Ayala

I grew up in a holiness church and continue to serve and fellowship there, but it was sad to see my peers (at that time) leave the church because they felt “cluster phobic.”  They felt as if there were many rules and were being watched by others.  That’s the impression the young people got before, but it has gotten better today.  So, I was not surprised that young people would leave the holiness church.  I wanted to do change our perspective of the heart and mind of the youth these days.   That is why I needed to learn and gain knowledge about serving our young people and young families who don’t know where they stand with their faith. 
What kept me continuing to serve and be a member of the church was the love that everyone expressed to me.  Yes, love might not be the only thing young people are looking for, but that was enough for me.  Some say that they did not have a sense of belonging or did not quite fit in the group.  I want to change that and include to all people because Jesus said, “Let all the children come to me…all the weary and burdened…” (Matthew 19:6, 11:28)  Everything that we fear about our lives or the circumstances that we are in should not be a reflection of who were are; therefore, we (as a holiness church) should consider the way we come across to everyone. The example of the living Jesus should be exemplified in our daily walk and relationships. 

Kaylee Tilford

In my experience, one of the things that has prompted a lot of people my age to leave the church is the fact that they were never taught how to properly evaluate their faith and ask the tough questions. Many of them, as they started hearing about a God-less evolution theory, equality issues, and other things the church wouldn’t talk about from outside sources found their faith challenged as they were presented with compelling arguments. And since the church wouldn’t talk about it, they never were given the necessary tools to evaluate the outside information they were given and how to incorporate it or reject it based on their religious convictions. So many kids were raised in a “don’t ask questions just believe” sort of environment that it actually made the doubt worse. And this is quite clearly reflected in the numbers presented in this study.
What I think this means for us as we try to help children and young people grow and mature as Christians, especially in the holiness tradition, that we must provide a space for them to be able to ask the hard questions and work through them in a way that teaches them how to approach topics with humility, but also stick to their convictions and not be swayed by every compelling argument. This means that we don’t just give them “Sunday School” answers to their questions, but rather we guide them to come to their own conclusions, offering assistance and a sounding board as they do.

Stephen Phillips

Looking at the Pew studies some of the numbers are interesting and insightful. I am concerned about the rate of children who stay in the holiness church when they adults. I do wonder what is it in the holiness church that makes it hard to keep children in our churches. I do believe that many of these people leaving the holiness church are leaving to other Christian churches where they feel they can belong. Part of the reason for many of the young adults I know who left the church is that they feel the church is against science and that the church’s faith is shallow. Whenever a topic becomes too controversial or people begin to ask questions very often the response they get is simply saying you need to trust God. There is no feeling of authenticity for some of these young people to feel like they belong here. More often they feel that the church is a place for people they can’t be one day. I do believe that when we can articulate a message where holiness is spoken in a context of authentic love that makes holiness more relevant to people.

Samantha Shreve

No, the results do not shock me. I am completely aware of the problem we have retaining youth. I have done research on these statistics in my own attempts to understand how we can better help our youth. I did find the reasons why youth are not staying in their religion to be alarming, sad, and something we need to get a hold of.

First was “Young people feel overprotected by their parents and elders”. I am very protective of my children, however I allow them to be their own person. If we are helicopter parents we are causing more problems than we are helping. However, I think this is not a clear enough description to understand how our youth may be feeling. Second, “Young people think Christianity as presented to them is shallow”. We sure have a solid way of introducing or presenting christianity as shallow. The exclusion of outsiders that our youth feel is absolutely accurate. I feel like we, as the church as a whole, lack an ability to love, as we should be. Last, “Young people think the church allows no room for their doubts”. This is a huge issue I feel like we face because we do not allow anyone to have doubts, or to have questions. We lead them to believe if they have doubts or questions then they are in the wrong to feel or think that way. We give an assumption that knowing Jesus means we have no doubt and no questions.

We must pray in a way that helps us to find the way to help our youth see the goodness of God, not expecting them to have it all figured out. We also seem to forget that we are not perfect, that we still are being made new everyday, let’s allow our youth the same understanding. It should sadden each and every one of us that our youth are leaving, and there is a lack of experiencing the love of Jesus in real and tangible ways. Let’s do better! In a nutshell, this article is alarmingly accurate and we must do something about our youth.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Type in all 5 of the digits below to leave a comment. * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.